ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —There is no more damning indictment of American society than the presence of homeless men, women and children amidst such incredible wealth. “We should never accept that this tragedy is inevitable or intractable,” said the Rev. Trey Hammond Thursday at the 2011 Albuquerque homeless persons’ memorial vigil.
But each year since 1990, at the instigation of the National Coalition for the Homeless, activists in cities across the United States have organized memorials “to remember our homeless friends who have paid the ultimate price for our nation's failure to end homelessness.”
In Albuquerque, where vigils have been held for more than a decade, there were “68 documented deaths” of homeless men and women over the past year, said Hammond, “and there are invariably more.” The people forgotten while alive seldom get recognized when they die.
The dead were remembered at the downtown First United Methodist Chris with words and music, sometimes choked, often eloquent and always heartfelt. “The people that we lost, they were beautiful people,” said one speaker. Another concluded his recollection of a fallen friend with a moving a capella cover of the African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water.”
Earlier this month, a survey of 29 U.S. cities reported a 6 percent overall increase in homelessness. Requests for emergency food aid had increased an average of 15.5 percent, and 26 percent of those persons seeking help were employed, according by annual survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
The delusion that extreme poverty and homelessness is solely the consequence of personal failings, unchangeable human nature, is deeply embedded in popular culture. Yet the vast majority of all homelessness in the United States could be eliminated in a decade through a comprehensive public commitment that included affordable housing, a single-payer heathcare plan, and living wages for all workers. The belief that this is impossible survives by the assenting nods of persons unwilling to examine conventional wisdom, but the belief is also sustained, sometime zealously perpetrated, by the greedy and the indifferent.
On Thursday, the national Jobs with Justice coalition announced that it had chosen its “Scrooge of the Year,” none other than Rob Walton, chairman of Walmart’s board of directors. Walton’s estimated net worth is around $21 billion and his family, heirs to the fortune created by retailer Sam Walton, has a combined net worth is $93 billion. “The Walton family has as much wealth as the bottom 30% of American families combined – more than 35 million families,” according to Jobs with Justice.
“The family’s dividends from their Walmart stock alone are more than $2 billion/year. Just using their dividends, they could ensure that a million Walmart employees make at least $12/hour,” according to the coalition, which is not expecting a charitable turn from the Waltons. “Just last month Walmart, under Rob’s leadership, slashed health care coverage for hundreds of thousands of Walmart employees and their families.”
Homelessness and poverty will not be solved by charity. Charity humanizes the giver and acknowledges the flesh-and-blood and spiritual connections with the recipient. But charity without a commitment to justice, in this case, policies to correct gross inequality and restore the social contract our nation deserves, means this disgrace will endure.